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Local students dig up Madison's past

July 27, 2010 12:35 am


Ford Lautenschlager of Stafford and Emma Simpkins of Spotsylvania helped archaeologists at James Madison's Montpelier this summer try to find an old stable area.

IT'S ONE THING to sit in a college classroom and hear a college professor describe archaeology.

It's another to get down in an excavation pit and peel back soil and time with a trowel to find where buildings stood centuries ago.

Emma Simpkins of Spotsylvania County and Ford Lautenschlager of Stafford County have gotten that sort of real-world experience this summer at a special archaeology field school at James Madison's Montpelier in Orange County.

The two James Madison University students were among college students from all over the country who, in separate month-long sessions, got to live at the historic home of the nation's fourth president.

Their charge: spending long days doing excavations to find and understand the layout of the lost Madison Stable Quarter, made up of the stables, a blacksmith's shop and slave quarters.

In their work, the students have found horseshoes, saddle frames and bits. By the end of the summer, Montpelier hopes to outline the exact location of the stable and all of its outbuildings.

"If you'd told me six months ago that I'd get excited seeing color patterns in a 5-by-5 hole in the ground it wouldn't have made sense to me," said Lautenschlager, a North Stafford High School grad majoring in history.

But that, said the rising college senior, is exactly what happened when long hours of scraping with a trowel revealed what may well have been a wall or foundation.

"It sounds silly, but as I began to see a pattern emerge, I was just hoping it wouldn't be something like a tree," Lautenschlager said. "I wanted it to be a feature that meant something."

Simpkins, a Riverbend High graduate and international affairs major, said she also enjoyed learning how a low-tech activity such as troweling can allow trained archaeologists to locate buildings and even understand how people lived in times long past.

The rising college junior said it was exciting finding artifacts, pieces of glass and ceramics in her test plots. She noted that the students also spent time in the lab at Montpelier cleaning and cataloging artifacts.

Both students said the work was hard at times, mainly because of the heat, early mornings and occasional monotony of their tasks.

But they enjoyed getting to know the other students and seeing the Montpelier home and grounds from the inside.

The pair, like most of the students taking part, will get academic credit through an exchange program. JMU handled the first; State University of New York at Plattsburgh the second.

Students taking part in the two field schools--21 in the first session, 13 in the second--came from a range of colleges, from Carleton College in Minnesota to Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania to the University of Tennessee.

The student work fits in with a three-year effort to investigate the life and quarters of slaves who toiled at Montpelier during Madison's time. The undertaking will be funded by a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Included in the effort will be archaeological fieldwork to excavate the home sites of three groups of slaves:

House slaves, who worked directly under the Madisons in the mansion and who lived close by in the South Yard.

Stable and garden slaves, who lived and worked slightly farther away in the Stable Quarter.

And field slaves, who lived away from the mansion in the Home Quarter.

In a release on the grant, Montpelier Director of Archaeology Matthew Reeves said the excavation will provide a better understanding of the more than 100 slaves who served Montpelier and the Madisons.

"Few plantations have pristine archaeological remains of an entire slave population like Montpelier, and this creates a remarkable opportunity to gain insight into the complex workings of the whole plantation," he said in the release.

Although Montpelier has professional archaeologists on site to spearhead that effort, student and volunteer programs will continue to assist.

"I'd like to come back and help at some point," said Lautenschlager. "I'm not sure I'll ever do this as a profession, but as a history major, it's interesting to see how archaeology can fill in so many of the blanks."

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

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